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The History of Caribbean Calypso Music

Updated on July 22, 2017

Calypso Blues

Origins of Calypso

Most music scholars agree that Calypso originated from a West African music form called kaiso. Then it crossed the Atlantic with the African slaves and landed in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, where the rustic musical expression took root and grew. Eventually, the music became a means for storytelling and communicating among African slaves working on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. By the 1800s, this musical form of expression had also evolved as a indiscreet way of criticizing and making fun of the status quo on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.

In the early part of the 20th century, Calypso recordings began to be made in Port of Spain, Trinidad. By the early thirties, Trinidad musicians were traveling to New York and cutting Calypso records that were sold nationwide. Some of the early pioneers of recorded Calypso music, included performers with colorful names like Attila the Hun, Roaring Lion and Lord Invader.

Calypso saw its heyday in 1956, when Harry Belafonte, an American singer, released the groundbreaking album, Calypso, which sold several million copies, making Mr. Belafonte, a very wealthy man.

Plantation Life

During and after the colonization of Trinidad, sugar cane was an important agricultural crop
During and after the colonization of Trinidad, sugar cane was an important agricultural crop

Colonization of Trinidad and Tobago

Undoubtedly, Columbus was the first European to visit Trinidad and Tobago. In 1498, during his third voyage, the Genoa merchant visited both islands, along with many places on the mainland of South America. Before the arrival by Columbus, the two islands were inhabited by a healthy population of Carib and Arawak natives. Early conflict with the Indians may explain why it took the Spanish almost a hundred years to establish a permanent settlement on these two islands.

Even after the Spanish settlement, the islands still held a large Native population. Next came the French Revolution, which lead to a large number of Creole and free people of color moving to the two islands from other parts of the Caribbean that were under French control. As a result early traditions of the Calypso style of music were often sung in French.

Finally, in 1797, the islands fell into British control. In the early 19th century, slavery was abolished, but working conditions remained hard. Furthermore Trinidad and Tobago were crown colonies, where the residents had no say in the way that they were ruled. These cultural conditions lead to further development of Calypso, as an English-speaking critique of the British overlords.

In 1925, Trinidad officially became a democracy, though this much-needed change did not eliminate the need for political dissent. As a result Calypso singers continued to satirize island life through rhythm and song.

The Golden Age of Calypso

The 50s were definitely the heyday of popularity for Calypso music. Released in 1951, Nat King Cole's post war recording of Calypso Blues, set the stage for the musical explosion, but it was Harry Belafonte's popular, 1956 groundbreaking album, simply titled Calypso, that made the musical idiom a household word.

Then along came Maya Angelou, who just a year later, put out a saucy and popular LP, entitled Miss Calypso, which also sold very well. Miss Angelou would go on to gain far greater fame as a writer, but her contribution as a Calypso singer was recorded both on vinyl and film.

After a brief career as a Calypso singer, Maya Angelou went on to become a much heralded and widely-read writer.
After a brief career as a Calypso singer, Maya Angelou went on to become a much heralded and widely-read writer.

What Is Mento?

Though Belafonte's album was called Calypso, the barrier-breaking recording also featured a similar style of Caribbean music called Mento. In fact, Belafonte's big hit, "Day O" is actually a mento song, a style of singing and acoustic playing that developed in Jamaican. Differences between Calypso and Mento are slight, while similarities are great. Still, the differences need to be recognized because during the 50s many of the great Calypso hit tunes are actually Mento songs from Jamaica, the well-known Caribbean island that also gave the world Reggae and Ska music.

The Andrew Sisters

The Andrews Sisters performing for G.I.s during WWII
The Andrews Sisters performing for G.I.s during WWII

Rum and Coca-Cola

Calypso may have its first obtained mainstream American success, when in 1944, the Andrew Sisters recorded Lord Invader's Caribbean hit, Rum and Coca-cola. Despite its popular success, some radio stations banned the song because of its mention of an alcoholic beverage, rum, and its endorsement of a commercial product, Coca-cola.

Another interesting aspect of the song was its straightforward criticism of third world prostitution during WWII. Even though the song was rewritten before the Andrew Sisters made their popular recording, some of the biting critique of the amorous activities of friendly military forces remains in tact.

And then there was the matter of royalties, which were not paid to the Trinidad songwriter until 1948 and then only after a successful lawsuit was brought forth in American courts in 1948.

For a good feel for the true intent of this song be sure to take a close listen to the original recording, as performed by Rupert Grant, alias Lord Invader.

Original Recording of Rum and Coca-cola

Soca

Today, soca has replaced Calypso as the more popular musical style of many Caribbean islands. In the 70s, soca musicians fused traditional Calypso with reggae, funk and soul to create a more upbeat musical style. Take a listen to Rihanna, who comes from Barbados, as she sings her distinctly Caribbean musical tale, Man Down.

Modern Day Soca - Man Down

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